This is a post by Mike Myatt author of Hacking Leadership: The 11 Gaps Every Business Needs to Close and the Secrets to Closing Them Quickly.
What is a thought leader, and what does thought leadership mean in today’s business world? As much as some people wish it wasn’t so, a thought leader is not someone who simply restates someone else’s views and positions. Furthermore, beyond uniqueness of thought, a true thought leader’s positions also challenge established norms and conventions. Moreover, the true litmus test for a thought leader is when their unique ideas are implemented in the marketplace, they tend to create disruptive innovation, and often change the way we view the world.
It is certainly much easier to look back in time at world leaders, Nobel laureates, religious scholars, philosophers, and captains of industry to identify historical thought leaders than it is to identify today’s visionaries. This is due to the fact that thought leadership was once a term reserved for a limited few. Regrettably, the label of thought leader has evolved to become a self-bestowed title for anyone who has something to say or promote, often without regard for qualitative issues. Some would say that the term thought leader, once synonymous with futurist and innovator, is more closely aligned with snake-oil salesman today. Don’t get me wrong, true thought leaders still exist; they are just much harder to spot these days.
Let me begin by stating that authentic thought leaders, the real deals, are not created via great marketing and PR alone. While they are oft published, quite outspoken, and many times represented by marvelous publicists, they are not merely contrived, self-promoted legends in their own minds. Rather true thought leaders are born out of real-world successes, achievements, and contributions that have been recognized by their peers and competitors alike. Their work is widely regarded as being innovative, disruptive, and market altering. They are not the posers, but the players. They are not spin masters trying to make it, but are the undisputed market leaders that have already arrived.
It is also important to draw a distinction between personal or corporate branding and thought leadership. While thought leaders often become well recognized brands, there are many well crafted brands that have messaged thought leadership where none exists. Don’t allow yourself to get caught-up in the spin and hype associated with great marketers who will gladly accept compensation, but will leave you woefully disappointed when it comes to living-up to their billing. Look for real results based upon market leadership, and not just brand leadership alone.
I have nothing against the term thought leader, however it is my opinion the label should be reserved as an honor to bestow upon a select few, and not a title to be adopted by the masses. Dilution has the opposite effect of scarcity in that it diminishes value. Bottom line…judge people on their actions and results, not their rhetoric or their title. Don’t accept conventional wisdom as gospel unless you can validate proof of concept, and then only accept it if you can innovate with it, or around it. Challenge everything in business by looking to improve upon the status quo and differentiate yourself from your competition. I don’t advise my clients to adopt the practices of their peers, but rather to be disruptive with their innovation such that they create or widen market gaps between themselves and their peers. Lastly, when you run across a real thought leader, you’ll clearly recognize them as such for there is something truly unique in both their words and deeds.
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